I had never heard of the specific skill of ‘Life Writing’ until I applied for a place on a day workshop run by Testimony in Practice at the Library of Birmingham and held last weekend. I came away much wiser and full of advice from Emilie Pine and Carmen-Francesca Banciu.
Emilie is the author of the award-winning collection of personal essays, ‘Notes to Self‘. She used writing exercises based on our own life experiences, relationships and memories to school us in the practice of adding emotion and detail to our writing. She had us switching tenses and view points to test their impact. She told us to delete our fist paragraphs and to take our opening line from somewhere in the middle in order drop the reader straight into the scene.
Carmen is a writer who has chosen to share her life experiences through memoiristic novels. She explained that writing directly about yourself and trauma can be too painful and it can be awkward for the friends and family you include in your work. Turning it into fiction can make it possible to record experiences more honestly. Carmen encouraged us to use our imagination about an object hidden in an envelope and, once revealed, to place that object in a fictional setting. She made us try writing with our left hand in order kick start other areas of the brain and see how that affected our writing.
Both women emphasised several common points, some of which we already know but sometimes fail to implement:
- Put writing at the top of your ‘to do’ list
- Free yourself from the necessity to be good in a first draft. Make it good through editing later.
- Write quickly in whatever pocket of time you have
- Fiction can be a form of testimony and gives the writer the necessary distance to tell a difficult story
- Authenticity in memoir is not always about absolute accuracy but about honesty of intent i.e. the essence of experience.
- A first draft may come up with contradictions, such as ‘I love him’ and ‘I hate him’. It is at the hinge of such contradictions that the real story starts.
- Passages of high emotion can be made manageable for writer and reader by including a less intense interlude of description.
- Slowing the pace and inserting detail can vastly improve a manuscript.
Now I’m raring to get back to my WIP and have the intention of adding increased emotion and fine detail to my work!